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By William Michael Smith
By Jef With One F
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All my friends know the low rider / The low rider is a little higher / The low rider drives a little slower / Low rider, is a real goer. -- War, "Low Rider"
Inside the giant convention hall at Reliant Center, under a sickly amber-colored fluorescent light, lies an ocean of Houston street culture -- the Los Magnificos Car Show, a sea of chrome, paint, smoke and steel all set to a throbbing hip-hop soundtrack.
At one end of the vast room there's a huge stage, where the likes of local legends Big Moe, Slim Thug and Baby Bash, and national heavy hitters such as Ludacris and Chingy will take the stage over the course of a long afternoon and evening, while at the other end there's another stage where the underground up-and-comers perform in front of friends and family.
In between, there are literally acres of low-riders. To walk from one end of the room to the other takes about half an hour, and you feel as overstimulated as a sugared-up two-year-old on his first trip to Chuck E. Cheese's. There are modern low-riders -- tricked-out Lexuses and SUVs. Then there are the classics -- everything from 1980s Broughams to 1940s Chevys, complete with plush velvet interiors and Mexican flags dangling from the rearview mirrors. It's not just a Hispanic thing, though -- for there is Scarface's custom 30-foot Hummer and the Rap-A-Lot RV.
There's also a big section of chromed-out bicycles -- the winner was a royal blue and bright yellow homage to the comic book character Wolverine -- and even a few bling-bling tricycles. Every so often, a cloud of dry-ice smoke billows forth to enshroud the rides.
Lining the sides of the room are dozens of hip-hop music industry booths -- all the big local labels like Rap-A-Lot and Dope House are there, often with bikini-clad girls handing out flyers. Then there are the other, less glamorous industry folks: tape duplicators, CD pressers, graphic artists and T-shirt designers. All of them have booming sound systems cranked to 11 and all of them are playing different beats -- it's the aural equivalent of drowning in hip-hop soup. At one such booth, an intense knot of kids gathers around a sound system, freestyling, eager to snatch the mike from one another and spit a few impromptu verses.
And everywhere there are people, virtually all of whom are black or Hispanic. While you see a few Hispanic dudes still wearing the brimmed hats of the classic low-rider, and a small clique of young cholos sporting vintage zoot suits, most of the men are clad in a bewildering and positively psychedelic array of sports throwback jerseys. Many have the braided hair made popular by ballers like Latrell Sprewell.
The older cats resurrect sports ghosts long forgotten -- it's like riffling through a bizarro edition of the complete set of Topps 1979 football cards. There's a short and Hispanic Philly Eagle No. 17 over there. Remember Harold Carmichael, the freakishly tall black guy who caught at least one pass in almost every game he played? That guy does. A solidly built black guy sports a black-and-yellow Franco Harris Steelers jersey -- in the very shadow of the Dome, it brings back some of the most unpleasant of Houston sports memories. Others exhume such design tragedies as the 1970s mustard-yellow and shit-brown San Diego Padres abominations, or the baby-blue and red Phillies unis worn by the likes of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, which also dredge up tragic recollections for Houstonians. One kid, who looks much too young to remember the era, is clad in a Phi Slama Jama Clyde Drexler model, autographed by the Glide himself.
And then there's the Astros regalia -- hands-down the most popular stuff going. There's a few orange rainbows, a scattering of the navy-blue hats, and literally dozens of variations on the theme that no Astro ever wore. There are green Astros shirts and yellow Astros shirts, pinstriped Astros hats and multicolored Astros hats.
There's what you would call a statistically insignificant number of white people in attendance. Hip-hop, throwbacks and cars have united two-thirds of the city. Houston's blacks and Mexican-Americans are having quite a party together, and when you're at the Los Magnificos Car Show, you know you're at the true cutting edge of our city's real culture. Black people gave the world rap. Mexican-Americans gave the world low-riders. The two go together like chocolate and peanut butter. And now each has taken the other's contribution and run with it -- the biologists would call it symbiosis. After all, the Los Magnificos Car Show was sponsored by the Box, an African-American hip-hop station.
If you're wondering why the Box sponsored a low-rider show, or what hip-hop has to do with Mexican-American car culture, you've missed the revolution that has taken place in the last five to ten years. Latinos have become the largest minority in the United States, and Mexican-Americans make up two-thirds of all Latinos in the country, and 72 percent in Houston. (It's likely much higher -- 191,000 Houston Hispanics declared themselves "Hispanic -- Other" in the 2000 census, and it's far more likely that the vast majority of them are of Mexican origin rather than, say, Chilean or Cuban. Then there are the illegals, most of whom are also from Mexico and many if not most of whom didn't fill out census forms.)
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